Dwarf Blazing Star, Gay Feather

Georgia<br>Perimeter<br>College Botanical Garden

Photo courtesy of inspirezone.org

By Thelma Glover

With so much interest today in the health properties of our native plants, Liatris may soon be sold from drug store shelves, as well as the native plant nurseries.

References are common in Folklore books about the medicinal properties of Liatris. The roots of Liatris spicata mixed with water were used by the eastern Cherokees for back-ache, pain in the limbs, dropsy, diuretic, cough, and as a stimulant. John Barton refers to this same species as being used as a treatment for venereal disease. Chippewa tribes in the western plains used Liatris scariosa as a diuretic and for sore throat. This tribe also used the root of this species mixed with water to give to horses before a race.

Liatris is a wholly North American genus of mid to late summer blooming wildflowers in the large composite family. This genera is dispersed widely from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains, usually found growing in poor, dry, rocky or sandy soil. At least l4 species can be found in our state and its not unusual to find intermediates between these species as most Liatris hybridize freely. All of the 40 species in this genus have narrow grassy-type leaves with flowers of some shade of purple, with a white counterpart occasionally found. All have a determinate inflorescence, the unusual characteristic of the blooming sequence from top to bottom.

Probably more recognized in the past as a staple in cut floral arrangements, many species of Liatris are now showing up in backyard gardens. With its vivid flower color and striking architectural interest, coupled with its ability to withstand summer droughts and benign neglect, it should be at the top of everyone’s list of the easiest and best sun perennials.

Of the many cultivated species of blazing star, my favorite is the dwarf, Liatris microcephala, {(mikros=small) (kephale)=head}. Small, compared to its more robust 3-5’ leggy relatives, seldom topping out at more than 20”, its the runt of the litter.

Blooming from mid August on into September when most summer flowers are exhausted by the ravages of the hot Georgia sun, dwarf blazing star can perk up a sunny bed or border as much as a slow soaking summer rain.

Description: Dwarf blazing star is a hardy herbaceous perennial growing from a woody corm with entire, alternate, deep green linear leaves. The basal rosette can easily be mistaken for a lush tuft of grass until the flowering stems emerge. The leaves around the scape are very narrow also, crowded densely and reduced in size upward. The inflorescence is a spiky raceme of disc flowers only with peduncles so short the flowers appear sessile. This species starts blooming in Atlanta gardens around the first two weeks in August and overlaps the blooming period of L. spicata and L. graminifolia. This species is not as common in the wild as the two mentioned above.

Culture: Dwarf blazing star is one of the very easiest wildflowers to cultivate; tough as nails, non aggressive, dependable flowering, drought tolerant, ph insensitive, happy in poor soil, competes well with other plants and weeds, never needs fertilizer and can go many years without division. Now for the bad news! Its only happy planted in the sun and it MUST have LEAN, WELL DRAINED SOIL. This only means that sand or gravel must be added to the existing soil and only enough organic matter to keep the soil loose. Plant it in the fall or early spring with the corms barely below the soil. Divide the clumps every 4 or 5 years.

Propagation: Collect the seeds of Liatris when the heads begin to expand exposing the fluffy pappus which turns a dingy tan as the attached nutlets begin to ripen. This is usually 4-6 weeks after blooming ceases. Like other composites the heads hang on for a long time allowing plenty of time for collecting the seed. Viability is low so sow generously. I have better luck with germination by stratifying all Liatris species even though they are not supposed to require it. Plants started from seed will flower in their second year.

Liatris can also be propagated by dividing the corms. This is easier done in early spring before the foliage emerges. The corms are hard and woody and resemble good size tan warts. In fact if the plants were planted as shallow as they should be these corms can usually be seen at ground level. Lift it up and cut the segments and replant them, covering with soil no more than a couple of inches.

Garden use: All of the Liatris are perfect vertical accents in a flower border. Used in small groups they are among the best plants to break up the monotony of mounded, rounded plants. They are equally at home in a wildflower meadow as in a formal planting. Mix Liatris species with Rudbeckia and Echinacea, wild quinine and variegated, ornamental grasses. Leave the seed heads through the fall to feed the finches. Plant Liatris in butterfly gardens to attract Monarchs and in the cutting garden for long lasting cut flowers.


Prairie Nursery Niche Gardens
P.O. Box 306 1111 Dawson Road
Westfield, WI 53964 Chapel Hill, NC 27516
(800) 476-9453    Fax (608) 296-2741 (919) 967-0078    Fax (919) 967-4026

Georgia Perimeter College Native Plant Botanical Garden
3251 Panthersville Road
Decatur, GA 30034


Ottesen, Carole, 1995, The Native Plant Primer. Harmony Books, NY.

Coffey, Timothy, 1993. The Histsory and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. Facts on File, Inc., NY.

Densmore, Frances, l974. How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine Crafts. Dover Publications, Inc., NY.

Hamel, P.B. M.U. Chiltoskey, l975. Cherokee Plants-their uses-a 400 year history. Published by the authors.

Jones, S.B. & N.C. Coile, 1988. The Distribution of the Vasular Flora of Georgia. UGA Botany Dept, Athens, GA.